“Vol Vistu Gaily Star”
Composed by Slim Gaillard, Slam Stewart and Bud Green; arranged by Johnny Watson.
Recorded by Jan Savitt and His Top Hatters for Decca on August 29, 1939 in New York.
Jan Savitt, directing: Jack Hansen, first trumpet; Jimmy Campbell and Johnny (Augustino) Austin, trumpets; Al Leopold, first trombone; Robert “Cutty” Cutshall and Don “Miff” Sines, trombones; George “Gigi” Bohn, first alto saxophone; Jack Ferrier, alto and baritone saxophones; Eddie Clauson and Gabe Galinas (sometimes Gelinas), tenor saxophones; Gene DePaul (DePaulo), piano; Guy Smith, guitar; Morris Rayman, bass; Russ Isaacs, drums; George “Bon Bon” Tunnell, vocal.
The story: The story of how Jan Savitt and His Top Hatters hit the big time in the late 1930s is told elsewhere on this blog. Click on this link to read about that: https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/07/04/ring-dem-bells-1939-live-jan-savitt-and-his-top-hatters/
The major assets the Savitt band had were Jan Savitt himself, a superbly trained and experienced musician; the strong band of musicians he assembled, including lead and solo trombonist Al Leopold; the sensuous and in-tune songstress, Carlotta Dale; and the dynamic vocalist and showman George “Bon Bon” Tunnell.
George N. “Bon Bon” Tunnell (shown at right in 1938) was born in 1903 in Reading, Pennsylvania. He was a rich voiced and versatile vocalist who was equally effective singing ballads, jump tunes, novelties, and was especially impressive scatting. (More about scatting or scat singing below.) Tunnell acquired the nickname of “Bon Bon” in the mid-1920s when he sang on radio in Philadelphia as a part of a singing group called The Candy Kids. Tunnell, spent his early career as a part of various singing groups. Bon Bon and His Buddies was one of the first groups he led in the period 1929-1931. After that, he achieved substantial popularity with a group called The Three Keys.
The Three Keys featured Bon Bon on piano (he was an excellent stride-style pianist), guitarist John “Slim” Furness, and bassist Bob Pease. All three musicians basically sang and played together, though Tunnell also occasionally sang solo passages with this group.(*) Furness and Pease were from Chester, Pennsylvania. The Three Keys recorded 16 songs during 1932-1933 for ARC/Brunswick, worked in both Philadelphia and New York City venues and appeared on radio, especially in Philadelphia. The Three Keys were featured as a part of a concert at the London Palladium in September 1933. The group was successful in the early 1930s, but broke up in 1936 because Tunnell had received an offer from bandleader Jan Savitt, who like Tunnell, was a well-known radio personality in Philadelphia.
Bon Bon gained a great deal of public attention during the time he was a featured singer with Jan Savitt and His Top Hatters, from 1937 until the spring of 1940. Among his best known recordings with Savitt are: “It’s a Wonderful World,” “Vol Vistu Gaily Star,” “Rose of the Rio Grande,” and the satirical “WPA.”
Tunnell’s popularity with the Savitt band was substantial enough that he was induced to become an independent entertainer, and embarked on a career leading various small swing-oriented groups through the early 1940s. He resurrected the name of Bon Bon and His Buddies for this group during 1941-1942, when he led two four tune recording sessions on Decca. (The session made on July 23, 1941 features arrangements by Eddie Durham, who also played guitar and trombone on the recordings.) Later in the 1940s, Bon Bon recorded at least 36 titles for the Davis and Beacon labels as a solo singer.
Tunnell returned to Philadelphia as a disk-jockey on WDAS radio during the summer of 1949. Early in the 1950s, he largely left the entertainment business (**), then worked in sales and public relations for a Philadelphia beer distributor for over 25 years. He died in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania on May 20, 1975, survived by his wife Katharine and two sons, Monroe and Keith. He is buried in Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.(1)
With this post on “Vol Vistu Gaily Star,” we return to the wacky, wild musical world of its composers, Slim and Slam, Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart. Slim & Slam was a musical partnership in the late 1930s and early 1940s consisting of Bulee “Slim” Gaillard (vocals, guitar, vibes and piano) and Leroy Elliott “Slam” Stewart (bass and vocals). They produced novelty jazz numbers featuring Slim’s distinctive vocal style with vocalese and scats, hipster argot and nonce words. Sam Allen played piano and Pompey “Gus” Dobson played drums on most of their early recordings.Their biggest hits were “Flat Foot Floogie (with a Floy Floy),” “Cement Mixer (Puti Puti),” “Vol Vistu Gaily Star,” and “The Groove Juice Special (Opera in Vout)”.Other musicians who recorded with Slim & Slam included Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Jimmy Rowles, Kenny Clarke, Al Killian, Chico Hamilton, Leo Watson and Garvin Bushell.(2)
“Vol Vistu Gaily Star” was initially recorded by Slim and Slam on August 17, 1938 with the record being issued in September of 1938. At the end of that recording, Slim and Slam have a brief exchange, which explains the song’s mysterious title:
Slim: Hey! Boy!
Slam: What’s the matter, man?
Slim: What’s that “Vol Vist du Gaily Star” mean?
Slam: Man, I don’t know. What does it mean, man?
Slim: Don’t mean a thing, don’t mean a thing.
Slam: Well, all right, man.
Slim: It’s a little jive talk, in the Floogie language, that’s all.
This cover of Slim and Slam’s original recording of “Vol Vistu Gaily Star” is a showcase not only for Bon Bon’s up-tempo singing, but for his scat singing as well. “In vocal jazz, scat singing is vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, nonsense syllables, or without words at all. In scat singing, the singer improvises melodies and rhythms using the voice as an instrument rather than a speaking medium.” (3)
This Johnny Watson arrangement begins with drummer Russ Isaacs playing his tom-toms, joined at first by the syncopated unison saxophones, then also by the open trombones playing the minimalist melodic passages that make up “Vol Vistu Gaily Star.” Of course, this performance is not really about melody: it is about rhythm. The entire ensemble then comes in, playing what becomes a modulation into Bon Bon’s vocal. The interplay between the sections of this band is impressive. Savitt was a masterful leader who knew how to facilitate musical performances that were both disciplined and enthusiastic.
Bon Bon sings two choruses: the first is a swinging exposition of the tune’s lyric; the second is a scatting romp that simply could not have happened in many bands during the swing era. His rich voice quality, good sense of pitch, range and swing are all evident in his singing here, even at this brisk tempo. (4) (Above left: Bon Bon with Jan Savitt – 1939. The tenor saxophonist between them is Eddie Clauson.)
The entire ensemble returns after the vocal, its arrival heralded by lead trumpeter Jack Hanson’s open horn. Hanson was an excellent lead trumpeter with a bright, ringing sound, and excellent command which are evident in this closing chorus. Trumpeter Johnny Austin plays a few bars of exciting open trumpet in this sequence.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(*) The style of The Three Keys was similar to that of The Rhythm Boys, a trio that featured a young Bing Crosby. Also, Tunnell’s early vocal recordings show that he (like many other young vocalists in the early to mid-1930s), had listened carefully to the recordings Crosby made soon after he became a solo performer. Some of the things The Three Keys did on record also remind me of the early work of The Mills Brothers.
(**) It has been reported that Tunnell occasionally revived the Three Keys for various engagements in and around Philadelphia, but this has not been verified.
(1) The information on George Tunnell is largely derived from his obituary in the Delaware County Daily Times, Chester, Pennsylvania, May 23, 1975. Here is a link to that: https://www.newspapers.com/image/?clipping_id=7757975&fcfToken=eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJmcmVlLXZpZXctaWQiOjIwNjgxMzk1LCJpYXQiOjE1OTg4MDc3MDYsImV4cCI6MTU5ODg5NDEwNn0.KscBWjoE2_wXwyPJZ5iKf3U_uPRgQDD-LrC83wGgb4Q
(2) The information regarding Slim and Slam is from the Wikipedia post on them.
(3) This basic definition of scat singing comes from the Wikipedia post on that particular method of vocalizing. For those who are interested in the history of scat singing, which pre-dates Louis Armstrong’s use of it, check this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scat_singing
(4) Bon Bon was an accomplished scat singer long before his tenure with Jan Savitt. Some of the recordings he made in 1932-1933 as a member of The Three Keys contain inspired scatting by him.
Links: Here are links to another of Sim and Slam’s opuses, “Flat Foot Floogie,” first by Benny Goodman:
and then by Bunny Berigan:
Here are some links to other music by Jan Savitt here at swingandbeyond.com..